Intentional Integrity Starts at the Top

July 30, 2020

Intentional Integrity Starts at the Top

Rob Chesnut is a former federal prosecutor who has spent the last 20 years of his career as a legal and business leader in Silicon Valley tech companies like eBay, Chegg and Airbnb. Most recently, he spent over four years as Airbnb’s General Counsel and Chief Ethics Officer and started the company’s ethics program. Here he shares advice from his book Intentional Integrity: How Smart Companies Can Lead an Ethical Revolution (St. Martin’s Press, July 2020).

HR People + Strategy: Everyone thinks they have integrity, yet we see organizations come under fire for failing to live up to their values. What is “intentional integrity,” and how can it help us get out of this integrity crisis?

Rob Chesnut: Integrity is a great buzzword; it looks great on a poster, but no one talks about what it really means. In today’s global workforce, we come from such different backgrounds and cultures—that diversity is a strength, but it also means that we lack a shared understanding of how to treat each other and how to act. Leaders are uncomfortable talking about integrity, perhaps because they’re acutely aware of their own human failings, or perhaps because they feel uncomfortable imposing their own moral values on others. Where there’s silence and ambiguity, science demonstrates that people “fudge,” or do things that are in their self-interest, and convince themselves that it’s ok even when a neutral outsider could clearly see that it’s not. That ambiguity also creates fear and uncertainty, even among employees who want to do the right thing but aren’t really sure what that means.

Intentional integrity is a commitment from the top of the company to talk, in a specific and very human way, about how we all treat each other in the workplace, how a company treats customers, and how the company impacts the communities where it operates. It’s a message that can’t be outsourced to HR or a third party, it needs to come from leaders, and it needs to talk about things like romantic relationships in the office, alcohol and work events, using office resources for personal benefit, even hugging. 

HRPS: What’s at stake if companies don’t directly and explicitly address integrity? 

RC: Everything. We’ve all seen how brands have been ruined, careers derailed, and businesses sidetracked by ethical failures. The costs are enormous. And data shows that companies who act ethically by paying attention to things like the environment, governance, behavior by leaders, and social good actually outperform companies who do poorly in these areas. Integrity resonates with today’s employees, who see their personal brand closely tied to the brand of their employer and want to be proud of where they work. Consumers are increasingly making purchasing decisions based upon how they perceive the values of the business align with their own. 

We need companies to take the lead in solving many of the biggest problems that face the world. To lead effectively, companies and their leaders need to earn the trust and respect of their employees and the global community. Operating with integrity is critical to gaining that trust.

HRPS: How will intentional integrity protect employees from the bad decisions of individuals and fix pervasive corporate cultures that enable abuse of power, like we saw in the #MeToo movement?

RC: Intentional integrity is a proactive concept that sets the right tone at a company and creates a culture where it’s clear to everyone how to act. Bad behavior is contagious—if people see leaders acting badly, it enables them to rationalize acting badly themselves. But integrity is contagious as well. If employees get a clear message up front about what the company stands for and how the employees are expected to treat each other, and leaders live up to that message with their actions, you’ll avoid a lot of the bad behavior you’re seeing now.

Now, you won’t avoid all of it. We’re humans, we make mistakes. People will do things that violate the letter and spirit of the intentional integrity culture that each company creates, and that’s normal. Companies must create an environment where everyone is comfortable reporting bad behavior, there’s a trusted process for investigating that bad behavior, and employees—all employees—are held accountable with appropriate consequences.

HRPS: You say that “you can’t outsource integrity,” and that to be authentic, pervasive and persuasive, integrity must come directly from an organization’s leadership. If you could give one piece of advice to every CEO, what would it be?

RC: Look at integrity not as a roadblock to getting things done, but a potential superpower. You set the tone by your words and actions. Embrace that responsibility as an important element of your job. Understand that when you act with integrity and encourage others to do the same, there’s a powerful ripple effect that goes throughout your company and into the community that will build trust and give you a long-term business advantage. 

HRPS: Who “owns” ethics in a company? Who should be starting these conversations around integrity?

RC: You don’t need a Chief Ethics Officer to have an ethical company (though it might help). And having a Chief Ethics Officer doesn’t make you ethical. Two things do matter, a lot. First, it all starts at the top. If you have a CEO and leadership team that recognizes the importance of integrity and really prioritizes integrity, they can set the tone that permeates the company. If the leadership team doesn’t with integrity, it doesn’t matter who owns it or how hard they work—they won’t get far. 

With CEO backing, any leader can take the lead—it’s critical that the person be on the executive team (like a General Counsel or head of HR), so that when they talk about integrity, everyone knows that the message is endorsed at the top. Notice I say “take the lead” —no one person can really “own” ethics. At Airbnb, I used to say that I wanted us to have 5,000+ Chief Ethics Officers…that reflects the need for everyone in the company to take pride in a culture of integrity, and be willing to commit to following the rules and speaking up if they see a problem. 

HRPS: Ethics can be an intimidating subject to bring up. What advice do you have for leaders who want to kick start this conversation at their organization?

RC: I think it was hard 10 years ago. Now, when you raise it, you likely won’t get anyone saying that it isn’t important—just look at the news to see what happens at companies when you don’t address it. The data around the ties to company performance is compelling. Study after study shows that companies who do ethics and governance well will outperform companies that don’t pay attention to it. You don’t need to make a case for it anymore. Now it’s just a matter of getting comfortable with what has traditionally been considered a personal topic. You don’t have to be a perfect human being to be an advocate for driving integrity into your company’s culture. Think of it as an opportunity to build your personal brand by speaking up on a topic that really matters.

HRPS: How do ethics and integrity intersect with diversity and inclusion? 

RC: They’re closely tied. An important part of integrity inside a company is a sense of justice, that people from different backgrounds, genders, races and nationalities are part of the team, treated fairly and feel that they belong. You need the different perspectives that diversity brings if you want to be successful in the 21st century. That may be uncomfortable for some people who naturally gravitate toward people who are in their network, went to the same school or have the same background. Work is not a club where you necessarily want people who fit into the culture—that can be a euphemism for homogeneity that won’t serve you well. And just hiring a diverse team isn’t enough—you have to pay people equally and create a culture where everyone feels like they belong. 

You may have to challenge yourself and do things a little differently to achieve this. Start by looking at your LinkedIn profile—does your network look like you? If so, it’s not surprising that you have trouble finding diverse candidates…start by broadening your network. Encourage recruiters to do first-level screens with names and pictures removed to avoid unconscious bias. Adopt a Rooney or Mansfield rule to ensure that your slate of interviewees is diverse. And to reduce pay differential, don’t ask candidates what they make, or what they expect to make. Instead, adopt a “no negotiation” rule for starting compensation—decide up front what the job pays and commit that the winning candidate will get that offer, no more and no less. This helps even the playing field, since women and minorities are less likely to aggressively negotiate.

Hear more from Rob Chesnut at Visionaries 2020, a virtual event October 19-21, 2020. Learn more and register. 

The Authors: 

Rob Chesnut is author of Intentional Integrity: How Smart Companies Can Lead an Ethical Revolution (St. Martin’s Press, July 2020).